Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Strong as Death and Hard as Hell"

That is a description of love, according to a character in Andrew Davidson's wonderful first novel The Gargoyle. She has the line tattooed onto her body, and attributes it to Meister Eckhardt. She is almost right; and the "almost" hints at our one doubt about the book.

Briefly, The Gargoyle is about a nameless man who is brutally burned in an automobile accident. In the hospital, his body mutilated and his life changed forever, he meets a sculptor named Marianne Engel, who claims that she knows him -- and that she has known him for 700 years. She also claims that, long ago, they were lovers; and, not incidentally, that she receives messages from her "three masters," a group of medieval mystics including Eckhardt, who command her to carve gargoyles and other grotesques out of stone. A psychiatrist says that she is schizophrenic, and you can see why.

As the narrator begins to heal -- as much as he will ever be able to heal, given the extent of his injuries -- Marianne Engel tells him stories. Some are about their supposed adventures together; others are about love, found and lost, in different times and places -- Italy, Iceland, England and Japan. All the stories are beautiful and spooky, and all of them are sad.

We'll try not to give anything else away, because the story is almost compulsively readable. A blurb on the cover says that it "reads like a thriller," and this is true, both in the better sense and the worse one. Like the best of the airport-lounge paperbacks, The Gargoyle moves quickly, and sucks you along with it. And, also like most of those books, it does so with a plain, even unremarkable kind of prose. (There is one appearance, we regret to say, by the word "finalize.") This is surprising, since Davidson is clearly trying to write "serious" fiction, and has taken the time to fill the book with the sort of trivia-buff showpieces that are the mark of literary ambition in the Internet era. Significant bits of dialogue are reproduced in Japanese and Icelandic, and one loses track of just how many fonts the author chucks in. It is a little pretentious, and might very well have wrecked the book -- and yet it doesn't. It is as if Davidson set out to mimic the style of "ambitious" writers, but was pulled back to the straightforward storytelling of a good detective story.

This is a good thing. It means that he cares more about his story -- his characters and their lives -- than his reputation among the MFA set. We do too, since it's a good story and they are good characters.

We recommend the book highly. Is that clear? Good, because now it is time to explain our hesitation. Quite a bit of The Gargoyle dances around the edges of theology. Much of the action takes place in and around religious communities -- a Cistercian nunnery, a Beguine house, the outskirts of a parish church in what sound like the Canadian suburbs. Dante and his Inferno are central to the story. Some of the key figures are priests and nuns; Eckhardt's name, along with those of some less famous contemporaries, gets thrown around pretty freely. And yet for all his meticulous research -- How is a burn victim treated? What does Icelandic sound like? -- neither Davidson nor his characters have much to say about God. Especially not the God worshiped in, say, Cistercian nunneries. So far as we noticed, the word "Christ" occurs one time -- just like "finalize."

In most novels, this wouldn't bother us at all. We don't much care about the religious convictions, much less practices, of Jake Barnes or Jay Gatsby. But when you write a novel about people whose lives are largely shaped, if not by their personal faith then by the faith of their age and their own practice of the same, it seems to us that leaving this stuff out is a dereliction of authorial duty.

The novelist Alan Gurganus once remarked, in a class he was teaching, that it wasn't just prudishness to leave out the sex lives of your characters, but weak writing. Where, he asked, do people reveal themselves more completely than naked and in the bedroom? In our society, at least, religion may not be quite so basic, but it is even more intimate -- and revealing.

Davidson comes close. His narrator is an atheist, which can be used to explain some level of omission, not to mention ignorance. But Marianne is pretty nearly possessed by spiritual fervor; she talks about, and sometimes to, theologians of piercing brilliance. But none of their belief, and little of hers, ever sees the light of day.

That remark from Eckhardt is typical. She has, for pity's sake, had it stitched into her own flesh with needles; it must be pretty important, huh? And it is -- the line comes from a sermon on the child Jesus teaching in the Temple. Eckhardt is quoting, loosely, from the Song of Songs ("Love is strong as death and jealousy is as severe as Sheol," NASB; the latter clause rendered dura sicut infernus aemulatio in the Vulgate). Google can tell you this in 0.025 seconds; none of Davidson's characters mentions the Biblical source, much less tries to describe Eckhardt's complex thinking about love.

Now, there is one possible rationale which -- if true -- is rather exciting. We said that the Inferno is a central part of the story. What else would you expect, when the narrator has been burned alive? It occurs to us that this is one of the other works of art in which the Christian faith is an essential subtext, and yet Christ himself is not named. Souls in Dante's Hell are so separated from God that they cannot name him. Perhaps Davidson was trying to make this point. But if so, he has fallen just a bit short. By the end, his narrator gives every evidence of having been saved, redeemed by love; and yet he still cannot account for that love with any clarity. This seems awfully like authorial cowardice.

Love is everywhere in The Gargoyle; it is a story about the redemptive power of love. And yet, even though central characters are moved by a particular and distinctive vision of love, made flesh and suffering on a Cross, the novel shies away from engaging that vision with any specificity. This is an opportunity lost, and both the novel and its readers are poorer for it.

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